He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Friday 9 July 2010

Smugglers and pot-holes

Švejk registering his fellow Russian prisoners in Dobromil.
Švejk's march towards the front took an unexpected turn when he reached the village of Felsztyn. An escaped Russian soldier was having a bath  in the local pond just as our loyal Austrian soldier surprised him when looking for a place to billet his company. Faced with such a fearsome enemy, the Russian understandably legged it, stark naked and totally helpless. Our hero investigated the Russian uniform diligently and then decided to try it on. At that very moment, a patrol of Hungarian soldiers arrived and Švejk suddenly found himself in captivity, arrested by his own army.

In July 1915 there was no border to cross and no formal obstacles to face. Since 1945 Galicia has been split between Ukraine and Poland, so recreating  Švejk's journey nowadays would mean breaking border regulations. On July 8 2010 I set off from Sanok to Ustrzyki Dolne to take the train onwards to Khyriv on the Ukrainian side. At the platform I encountered a phenomenon I hadn't come across in Poland so far: fat, ugly and vulgar women. These features are not normally associated with Polish women, who in general are anything but fat, ugly and vulgar. Even though I was not too familiar with their language, I still noticed that their vocabulary was strikingly similar to that of Polish workers on Norwegian building sites; consisting mainly of the word kurwa. The men on the platform were no less vulgar, so I wondered what kind of "tourists" these were?

Disgusted passenger on the wrecked Ustrzyki Dolne train
On boarding the train I had another surprise. The carriage was wrecked, seats ripped loose, litter was floating, and I got a very uneasy feeling. I have seen a lot of vandalism over the years, but this looked more like a war zone. A passenger asked me to take photos, so Norway could see what kind of bandits these were. I did, and soon a border guard appeared and escorted me into the tidy police carriage. I believe they did it to make my journey more comfortable, otherwise they would surely have asked me to delete the pictures. The guards were very helpful and even led me past the immigration queue and into the Ukraine. The passengers were also very curious and friendly. If they were Polish or Ukrainian I don't know. It is even possible that not ALL of them were smugglers.

When the train arrived in Khyriv (in 1915 Chyrów), there was frantic activity. Screwdrivers appeared and the "passengers" were suddenly busy dismounting the carriages inventory. From everywhere cigarette boxes appeared and it became clear why the carriage was in such an awful state. The Polish guards had left at the border, so now only the railway staff remained. They all turned a blind eye. Six years ago I had seen something similar at the Užhorod - Nižné Nemecké border crossing. A girl sitting next to me had more stamps in her passport than the most distinguished globetrotter, but she only had two kinds: a Ukrainian and a Slovak. It was clear then, and is still, that the EU eastern border leaks like a sieve.

Khyriv station.
In Khyriv I even found accommodation in a motel, quite unexpected. It was good value although the girl on duty was the most grumpy and unhelpful cow I had come across so far on the trip. I had more luck when trying to change money. The cash machine at the bank didn't work, but a nice lady escorted me to a "mahasin" where I bought some hryvni.

Khyriv was not an uplifting introduction to the Ukraine. The streets were little more than a collection of pot-holes and the place had the air of a society going to seed. Derelict or shabby buildings were the rule, as is normal in places with a declining population, a problem common to most of the former Soviet Union. The gulf from relatively wealthy Poland appeared huge, and in many ways this was worse than what I have seen in so-called "third-world" countries in South America.

Felsztyn, the village where Švejk was captured,has from 1945 been called Skelivka and the good people of Česká beseda in Lviv have erected a statue to the Good Soldier. A fine monument it is, modelled on Josef Lada's Švejk. I took a minibus the 7 km to the village and had a quick look. It was another poor and sad place, and the statue's backdrop was the shell of a building and some other derelict houses. A man back in Khyriv had suggested I walked there along the railway line, but I correctly figured that the minibus would be quicker, despite all the pot-holes.

The next morning I jumped on a train to Dobromyl, a train that hardly moved. Dobromyl station was another shell, overgrown, and smelling of shit. The only living being there was a goat feeding on the diverse vegetation along the crumbling walls. Only the sign saying Добромиль was new, a  striking contrast. The other passengers tried to persuade me not to go to Dobromyl, but I insisted that the road is always forward, something I had learnt from the Good Soldier. A babuška got very upset when I didn't listen to her advise and she waved angrily after me. I walked the 3 km into Dobromyl  centre, carrying my dirty and wretched backpack. Dobromyl was the same story of gloom but the churches were well kept, often with new and gleaming golden domes.

I was determined to carry on to Przemyśl via Nyžankoviči, like Švejk did in the transport of Russian prisoners, but encountered an unpleasant obstacle. A policeman came up to me and asked what I was doing in town. "I'm following Švejk", I said, wearing a t-shirt from U kalicha. Then he demanded  my documents, and I was getting a bit edgy, having heard stories of corrupt police. The constable was a fine man though, but he gave me some unwelcome news: there was no border-crossing at Nyžankoviči so I had ended up in a blind alley! Finally I understood why the old lady at the station thought I was utterly hopeless. The policeman even told me to get on the 11:25 maršrutka to Mostyska and a helpful crowd made sure I got on the right path.

I had time for two excellent Stare Misto live beer in a tiny and welcoming mahasin, and then had the dubious pleasure of getting rid of them in the wooden facilities next door. There was no need to ask where they were; they were signposted by an outlandish stench.

The minibus was another spectacular experience. When I got there I noticed it was packed, and I thought; "Bollocks, I won't fit in there". They waved me on still, the backpack was passed in through the drivers window and placed upside down between the legs of a lady sitting next to the driver. I was placed on the platform by the door and thought for a second that we would drive off with the door open. That was not to be though. We were squeezed in there and those of us near the door had to step off every time someone was getting on or off.
The pace was slow because the pot-holes prevented any sort of momentum. Fortunately people started to get off in the nearby villages, so it was becoming almost agreeable in there. I was kindly offered the front seat after the lady with my backpack between her legs got off. The rest of the journey to Mostyska was a breeze. Then there was another minibus to Šehyni (Шегині) on the Polish border. The minibuses have their own etiquette; the system of payment is based on trust. Passengers pass money forward to the driver, on a larger bus it can pass through 5-10 hands. The system appears primitive, but it works. It is also very practical on a crowded bus, as it makes boarding quick. The driver doesn't have to leave his seat, and payment takes in effect place when the bus moves. It is far more efficient than clever technological schemes used on public transport in some countries in the west (and east).

I crossed the border back to the EU on foot. Again the Polish border guard guided me past the queue, and I wondered what I had done to deserve such preferential treatment? If this was the general rule, I'd happily spend my next life travelling in and out of Poland. From Medyka into the city of Przemyśl, it was a just a short bus trip and I holed up in a cheap and disgusting place in ulica Kopernika, getting ready for the annual Manewry Szwejkowskie. My position was far better than Švejk's; I arrived in my own clothes and there was no court-martial threatening me. In fact I was about  to experience one of the absolute highlights of the whole trip.

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